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Oldest known drawing by human hands discovered in the South African cave

Oldest known drawing by human hands discovered in the South African cave

Nine red lines on a stone peel found in a South African cave is probably the earliest known drawing made by Homo Sapiens, archaeologists report Wednesday. The artifact, which scientists think is about 73,000 years old, dates from before the 30,000 years of the oldest, previously known modern human abstract drawings from Europe.

"We knew many things Homo sapiens could do, but we did not know that they could make drawings then," says Christopher Henshilwood, an archaeologist from the University of Bergen in Norway and lead author of the research.

The finding, which was published in nature, can provide insight into the origins of the use of symbols by humanity, which laid the foundation for language, mathematics and civilization.

The old drawing was excavated in Blombos Cave, about 200 miles east of Cape Town. Archaeological sites on the site date from 70,000 to 100,000 years ago during the Middle Stone Age. In the cave, scientists have uncovered homo sapiens teeth, spearheads, bone tools, engravings and beads made from shells.

Using a microscope, a laser and a scanning electron microscope, they determined that the traces were on top of the rock and that they were made of red ocher, a kind of natural pigment that was often used to make prehistoric cave paintings. Old people in the Blombos cave even made ocher-colored paint 100,000 years ago.

"Then we had to decide how they made those lines?" Dr. said. van Niekerk. "Are they painted or drawn?"

They created ocher paint, then made a wooden stick in a brush and made strokes on stone flakes similar to the sample. They also made an ocher chalk and drew lines. Then they compared the paint markings and colored pencil markers with what they had seen on the artifact.

They found that the old crisscross pattern was a drawing, not a painting made with an ocher-colored chalk tip that was probably only about 1 to 3 millimeters thick.

That distinction between a painting and a drawing is important, according to Dr. Henshilwood, because the batches can dry out of ocher-colored paint. This makes it less useful than an ocher-colored chalk that is used by an old person when he or she wants to make symbols without the trouble to mix paint.

Dr. Henshilwood and his team also showed that the red lines were drawn on a smooth surface. This indicated that the flake was once part of a larger stone that the primeval people may have used to grind ocher. They also showed that the original red lines were most likely sticking out of the stone flakes before the grindstone was broken.

They can not say with certainty what the purpose of the drawing was and whether it was just doodling or that it had a greater meaning. But they have their suspicions.

A version of this article appears in press , at page A10 from the New York edition with the head: Oldest known drawing by a man is found in South Africa. Order Reprints | Today's paper subscribe